Never Mind the Bo**ocks – here’s The TEFL Skeptic!
It’s often struck me that the IATEFL conference is a bit like a big music festival. You’ve got the global stars on the main stage, slightly more alternative acts in the bigger rooms, and then the unsigned bands that nobody has heard of (like me) playing in some faraway tent, mostly to people who are there by accident.
Some of the venues even have themes – the room with all the Learning Technologies SIG events is a bit like the dance stage, where all the techno-heads go to get turned on by people like Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockly. The Consultants-E are like Daft Punk – they started out as some kind of dance-oriented outfit, and over the years they have somehow managed to stay ahead of a very fast-moving game. As their genre has become more accepted as part of the establishment, they are now firmly at the forefront of the technology-driven mainstream.
The ES(O)L SIG room, by contrast, is more like a folk tent – inherently uncool and yet actually requiring considerable talent to perform. This year, Genevieve White, all KT Tunstall-like with her Scottish twang and quirky yet genuine humour, exemplified this with an unplugged set, choosing not to use technology in her workshop even though it was about developing writing skills for social media.
However, the problem IATEFL has had for a number of years is with the main set list. You tend to get the same old headline acts and over the years it’s become a bit tedious. Jeremy Harmer, the Elton John of ELT, is a great entertainer and loves to play up to his audience, but he hasn’t produced anything particularly original for many years. Most of his more recent work has consisted of re-hashings of previous, highly successful, stuff. A recent talk he gave for International House involved a dialogue-build, for goodness’ sake.
Jill Hadfield who, like Madonna, has been hugely influential with her once controversial but always highly accessible pop material (I’m talking about her invention of the spiral-bound supplementary book here), now relies heavily on other people’s theories (e.g. Zoltan Dornyei’s motivational self system), and somehow manages to make them seem a bit bland.
There are others who manage to be quite rock’n’roll though. Jim Scrivener is a kind of Noel Gallagher in the ELT world. His material was very refreshing in the 90s and achieved considerable commercial and critical acclaim. He has a wonderful ability to make something sound really good, and presents it in an uncompromising way. It’s all a bit derivative and any originality lies mostly in the way he repackages ideas, yet it’s still very pleasing to listen to.
Adrian Underhill did some groundbreaking work in the 1990s, with the Phonemic Chart – the “OK Computer” of English language teaching – a seminal creation that cemented his reputation as one of the most talented people in the field. Since then though, Adrian has got interested in all kinds of complex concepts that can actually hurt your head when you listen to them – a bit like Radiohead’s later albums. He did try and mix it up this year by playing in a smaller venue, and his partnership with Jim Scrivener has placed him more firmly into the mainstream again. He never seems quite comfortable with this, though. Despite his love of Bob Dylan, I see strong parallels between Underhill and Thom Yorke.
Scott Thornbury somehow manages to remain cool despite having been around for ages. Flamboyant and incredibly popular with most people, irritating and subversive to others, Thornbury somehow manages to be alternative and counter-establishment while at the same time being part of it. Because of this, he’s the man that all the young dudes want to be like.
It would be great to have David Bowie playing your festival – but if he played it every year, might that get a bit tiresome?
This year, the “same old same old” feel about IATEFL was given a major shake-up by the arrival of a new act. Russell Mayne presented “A guide to pseudoscience in English language teaching”, and this title alone attracted more than enough people to fill the small room he was in. Russell, known online as the TEFL Skeptic, has a problem with a few established ideas and theories in ELT, specifically those that have no scientific evidence to back them up. He started his talk by naming and shaming the organisations, and then the individuals (drawing audible gasps from around the room) who support or acknowledge theories such as NLP, multiple intelligences and learning styles. This was followed by a concise yet thorough debunking of these theories, achieved simply by quoting research findings to demonstrate that there is no scientific underpinning behind any of them, despite claims that there are.
In a kind of punk subversive act that Pussy Riot might be proud of, Russell held a mirror up to the establishment, exposed the flaws inherent in some key established beliefs, got out, had a quick drink and was on the next train home before Kirsteen Donaghy (the Jo Whiley of IATEFL/British Council Online), could interview him about it.
If you haven’t done so already, you really need to watch his presentation here.
At the end of the presentation, Adrian Underhill asked Russell why he didn’t just have a go at the whole of Communicative Language Teaching. After all, there’s no real scientific evidence that any of it works. Russell’s response – that there’s a difference between saying something is a good idea (whether it is or not) and saying something is scientifically proven (when it patently isn’t), was a measured one. But where do we go from here? Is it maybe time to just do a total re-think of the whole profession?
A couple of years ago, Jim Scrivener was talking about making tweaks in our teaching. This year he was talking about upgrades. Surely it’s only a matter of time before he (or someone else) starts calling for a complete overhaul? I suspect that this is what both Scrivener and Underhill secretly want to happen.
Hopefully, as a result of Russell Mayne’s presentation, more questions will be asked about the state of ELT and the (lack of) rationale behind popular approaches and techniques. From this, maybe it will be possible to come up with some principles that are bit more grounded, or a bit less dodgy at least.
For now though, while on the train home from Harrogate, I’m happy to just sit back and smile to myself at Russell’s description of how pseudoscientific theories seem to speak to us personally – “in the same way that horoscopes do”.